Supported by Viewers Like You…

Stephen Yagielowicz

As the dollar dynamic between media publishers and consumers continues to evolve, one intriguing strategic move comes from the U.S.-based Public Television System (PBS); which despite its historic stance as a longtime shunner of in-program and interstitial advertising, is increasingly incorporating sponsor promo spots — and even traditional advertising segments — into its on-air programming.

Recent reports indicate that this fall, PBS’ perennial favorite programs Nature and Nova will include several interstitial commercial breaks, rather than the familiar pre- and post-show acknowledgements, as a strategy for boosting its viewer retention. According to the New York Times, the longest period of uninterrupted programming would be around 15 minutes, compared to the current 50 minutes or more. PBS will monitor its viewer stats and could continue to introduce commercials on a nightly basis through the year.

One of the reasons cited for the change is that whenever PBS rolls its show-ending promo messages, it causes a virtual exodus of viewers seeking other programming. Adding commercial slots to the show allows it to perform a show-ending “hot switch” of its programming, bumping one program directly into the next, without a break in between.

According to programming executive John Wilson, “it’s almost as if someone pulled the fire alarm and [viewers] scrambled for the exits.”

Commercial television stations routinely use hot switches today as a retention mechanism, keeping previous show viewers tuned for the next show — rather than lose them to “channel surfing” in the between-program breaks.

Underwritten by a range of charitable trusts, non-profit foundations, the “generosity” of corporate interests — along with the support of “viewers like you,” obtained from what some call the station’s regular “beg-a-thons,” PBS has long enjoyed a diverse revenue stream. This cash flow, however, also includes PBS’ ongoing subsidy by the U.S. government through taxpayer dollars — a situation causing critics concern in the first place — concerns compounded by commercial breaks.

For some, it is a potential conflict of interest; for others, the problem may be one of “class,” where viewers of some of PBS’ more highbrow programming resent intrusions upon this last bastion of media free from commercialism. Perhaps this latter view is a bit idealistic on their part, but it represents the view of many, where PBS stood for quality programming, targeting a more intelligent audience than that sought by game shows, “reality” programming and sitcoms.

Other critics cite F.C.C. regulations prohibiting “advertising” on PBS, which state that commercial acknowledgements or announcements may not interrupt regular programming; however, messages are allowed prior to and following shows, between separate segments of longer shows and station breaks, “such that the flow of programming is not unduly interrupted.”

These regulations are designed to foster a premium viewer experience with balanced viewpoints — something often at odds with commercial interests.

“Whatever happens to PBS programming in the future, it’s the end of an era for commercial-free TV, which is now the exclusive province of premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime as well as a few movie-oriented basic cable channels such as HDNET Movies and Turner Classic Movies,” Bryant Frazer wrote for Studio Daily. Frazer noted that IFC, the formerly commercial-free Independent Film Channel, began running standard commercials last year.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out and whether or not PBS will suffer the same viewer backlash that AMC did when it began airing commercials. Whatever the result, the move serves as an example of the struggle faced by content publishers seeking to satisfy an evolving media marketplace.